This post has grown out of a discussion regarding my earlier post on the subject of magic in fiction and a comment that was made regarding Clarke’s Law.
Clarke’s Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Now, Arthur Clarke was a science fiction writer and in terms of fiction there is one sense in which I agree with it as a piece of advice for writers, and another sense in which I disagree with it.
In terms of plot devices (and this is the sense in which I believe he meant it) it doesn’t matter if you dress some bit of legerdemain in ornate robes or a silver spandex vacuum suit. If an element in the story does not exist in the real world, then that is what I call a fantastic element, and it doesn’t matter if the thing is considered plausible by some scientists or not.
If you introduce a character who can regenerate, it doesn’t matter if you explain it by magic or a mutant power or nanotechnology. You say the character can regenerate and the reader either accepts it as part of the world of the story or doesn’t. Willing suspension of disbelief depends on a great number of factors, but is largely independent of genre designation.
However, there is another sense in which they are not indistinguishable.
That is to say that in terms of constructing a story, different types of fantastic elements have different narrative functions.
For purposes of this discussion I will describe them as Superscience, the Uncanny, and the Miraculous.
Again, let me stress that these categories do not refer to the in-story handwavium that the author uses to explain the elements, but to the function they serve in advancing the story.
Superscience is something that is impossible in our world, but which follows definite and consistent rules within the story. Superpowers in comic books, the abilities of vampires and werewolves, magic spells in urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files and The Rivers Of London, warp drives and phasers in Star Trek.
Superscience can be a lot of fun. Writers often construct scenarios where one superscience power is pitted against another one, or a hero must use his ability creatively to solve a problem. These are the kinds of plot elements that make for great late night drunken conversations at cons. Could the Hulk beat a sandworm? What would happen if Rogue from X-Men touched Sylar from Heroes? Could a Dalek become a vampire? (Exsanguinate! Exsanguinate! Exsanguinate!)
And while Superscience is often defined as (small m) magic in the story world, it is really just a variant form of technology in terms of how it works in the plot. That’s is how magic works in my Dracoheim universe of stories–it is nothing more than a branch of engineering, and magi are simply people with advanced degrees in a difficult subject.
I am using the term Uncanny here to refer to fantastic plot elements which are inexplicable, yet thematically linked. The clearest examples of what I mean come from Horror. In the classic haunted house story, the events will often escalate in a predictable pattern, but are themselves lawless and incomprehensible. Bad things happen without reason or rhyme, and the reader is kept off balance, never knowing what is coming next, just that it’s likely to be horrible.
However, Uncanny does not have to mean bad, or frightening. The magical adventures in James And The Giant Peach, The Wizard Of Oz and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe are Uncanny in my sense.
Nor are Uncanny elements limited to the supernatural. Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon is a source for Uncanny inventions, devices with strange and unpredictable powers that come and go to advance the plot. Firearms in action movies often exhibit Uncanny properties in the hands of the heroes (sometimes the villains) and much of the alleged science on, say CSI, is Uncanny.
The risk in using Uncanny elements in the protagonist’s favor is that it can kill tension by giving a story a sense of inevitably. If the reader thinks that some unpredictable event is going to save the hero at the last minute, there is no point in worrying about what is going to happen next. The Harry Potter novels, in my opinion, suffer from that.
The Uncanny requires a light touch. Sometimes it is just there to provide a feel for a story, a sense of the unknown. (Clive Barker is a master of that, in my opinion).
In terms of effect on the story, though, it can’t be counted on, and should be capricious, if not downright malign, to the heroes’ goals. An Uncanny story is full of monkey wrenches and banana peels, patches of ice and sudden dead ends. If the heroes succeed it should be in spite of the Uncanny elements–even if they can use some of them to their advantage–rather than because of them.
The Miraculous is the hardest for me to describe. It is a bolt from the blue, a completely unforeseen moment that changes everything. In Portal Fantasy the event that trapped the hero in another universe generally falls into this category, even if some explanation of it is eventually given. Miracles, almost by definition, are things that happen once and can’t be undone or understood. Even if the effect of the Miraculous is ongoing (a boy wakes up one morning able to fly, or a woman takes a wrong turn and drives her car into the City of Brass and then must survive there) the event itself stands alone, sui generis.
These three forms of Fantastic elements can co-exist in one story, of course. In A Princess Of Mars, John Carter’s transit to Barsoom is a Miraculous event, much of what he encounters there is Uncanny, but his Earthborn strength and agility on the Red Planet is Superscience (as many of the Martian inventions become over time).
There is, unfortunately, a tendency for Fantastic elements to grow more explicable over time. These categories are on a continuum. What was at first Miraculous can, with repeated use in an ongoing series, become Uncanny, and then just a type of Superscience.
The TV series Supernatural is a textbook case of that, with angels and devils beginning as terrifying agents of change and degrading as the series went on into sidekicks.